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King’s English-Only

Iowa’s online voter registration forms can no longer be published in any language other than English. So said a ruling on March 31…

April 9, 2008

Iowa’s online voter registration forms can no longer be published in any language other than English. So said a ruling on March 31 from a state district court judge in Polk County ending Iowa’s Secretary of State’s commendable practice of providing voter registration forms online in four languages in addition to English. The main instigator of the lawsuit was U.S. Representative Steve King (R-IA), the same person who introduced Iowa’s English-Only legislation while a state Senator. If you’ve ever wondered what our members of Congress have been spending their time on lately, the answer is: trolling a state agency’s website to find grist for a lawsuit, one to make voting more difficult, no less.

Thirty-one states, in whole or in part, are required under federal law to provide voting materials in the language of specified language minority groups that reach certain numerical thresholds. Iowa is not one of those required states. So the actions its leaders were taking to promote broad political participation were especially meaningful and laudatory—a best practice among states for expanding voting opportunities.

But no more. After the judge issued his ruling, Iowa Secretary of State Michael Mauro removed the voter registration forms in all languages other than English. Ironically, while the Bush Administration’s Department of Justice brags about filing more cases since 2001 in support of minority language rights in voting than in the previous 26 years, Rep. King sues Iowa merely for providing some non-English forms on a website.

It is shocking that a member of Congress could justify spending his time on ending a practice that at its best, expands electoral participation to more citizens, at worst, is innocuous. It’s certainly not an issue of money. Iowa spent a grand total of $630 on non-English voter registration material. That was in 2006. On the other hand, Rep. King’s lawsuit no doubt cost taxpayers, in terms of expenses and government and judicial resources, much, much more. It is hard to argue that this lawsuit in any way served King’s constituents. It was simply a mean-spirited and divisive attempt to make it difficult for some eligible citizens to register to vote.

Rep. King had this to say about the lawsuit: “The English language unites us as a state and as a nation. E Pluribis Unum—out of many, we are one—with a common language.”

He’s wrong. We are a diverse nation. Our citizens have connections to countries all over the world and speak many different languages at home. Despite our differences, the commonality eligible citizens have and should jealously guard is the right to cast a meaningful vote. Even though voting participation in the recent months has hit record highs, electoral participation is far from universal. It is shameful and disappointing that such a well-intentioned and low-cost way of including more people in the democratic process could not be left alone.